Testosterone and Proactive-Reactive Aggression in Youth: the Moderating Role of Harsh Discipline

J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2018 Nov;46(8):1599-1612. doi: 10.1007/s10802-018-0399-5.


This study tests a biosocial model of the link between testosterone and proactive-reactive aggression in youth at varying levels of harsh discipline. Given that proactive aggression is used to gain power and status and the importance of social learning in its formation, we hypothesized that testosterone would be associated with proactive aggression at higher levels of harsh discipline, and that this relationship would be more pronounced in boys than girls. Participants (n = 445; 50% male; M age = 11.92 years; 80% African-American) and their caregivers completed questionnaires including demographics, conflict tactics, and proactive-reactive aggression. Youth also provided a saliva sample for testosterone. Analyses revealed an interaction between testosterone and harsh discipline on proactive aggression in both boys and girls, and an interaction between testosterone and harsh discipline on reactive aggression in boys only. For those experiencing high levels of harsh discipline, testosterone was positively associated with proactive aggression, with the magnitude of the association increasing as harsh discipline increased. For below average levels of harsh discipline, there were protective effects of high testosterone for boy's reactive aggression and for girl's proactive aggression. The findings support basic tenets of the biosocial model which suggest that links between testosterone and aggressive behavior are dependent on contextual forces, highlighting the complex relationship between hormones, social context, and aggression. Novel findings include protective effects of high testosterone for those exposed to low levels of harsh discipline. Findings are discussed in light of the context-contingency effect and also within the differential susceptibility framework.

Keywords: Biosocial; Harsh discipline; Proactive aggression; Reactive aggression; Testosterone.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / physiology*
  • Aggression / physiology*
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Parent-Child Relations*
  • Parenting*
  • Puberty / physiology*
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Testosterone / metabolism*


  • Testosterone